Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# Talking Points
Matt Doherty prepares for Old Trafford test, Klopp eyes sixth straight win and more Premier League talking points
Liverpool take on Southampton, Spurs travel to face Brighton and Man United welcome Wolves to Old Trafford.

Southampton v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League - St Mary's PA Wire / PA Images Shane Duffy equalises against Southampton on Monday night. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

1. Shane Duffy’s impressive early-season form deserves significant recognition

SHANE DUFFY’S START to the new Premier League season has been incredibly impressive. It is always a risky business to make grand assessments five games into a season, however the Irishman’s form for Brighton has been consistently effective throughout his 450+ minutes on the pitch so far against Watford, Man United, Liverpool, Fulham and Southampton.

On Monday night Southampton looked home and hosed for a rare home win at St Mary’s, leading Brighton 2-0 with less than half an hour remaining thanks to goals from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Danny Ings.

Duffy’s brilliant header ignited what seemed an unlikely comeback, before being fouled inside the box in the 91st minute to give Glenn Murray the chance to level from the penalty spot — an opportunity the striker succeeded in putting past Alex McCarthy.

It was Duffy’s second goal in four games, and his role in Murray’s penalty should not be glossed over either. The 6 ft 3 Derryman’s threat from set pieces has long been known, but his goal-scoring prowess also does him a slight disservice because it often overshadows his commanding defensive displays at the other end.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United - Premier League - AMEX Stadium Gareth Fuller Duffy was named Man of the Match following Brighton's 3-2 win against Man United last month. Gareth Fuller

Duffy earned the Man of the Match award during Brighton’s excellent 3-2 victory at home to Man United on 19 August; scoring with a composed finish inside the box to put Chris Hughton’s men two goals to the good.

But the goal was just the cherry on top of a display where he reigned in Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, and frustrated Jose Mourinho’s men with a structured, physical and disciplined performance at the back by commanding his side alongside Lewis Dunk with measure and purpose.

Frustrate his opponents he did at the Amex Stadium, and he has done all throughout this season so far. With Duffy amongst just a handful of Irish players currently plying their trade in the Premier League, he could lay claim to being the most in-form and, well, ‘best’ Irish footballer at the current moment.

On Saturday he will be tasked with keeping a subdued Harry Kane even more subdued. The England captain has flitted through a stop-start beginning to the campaign following his country’s heroics in Russia.

He needs a goal and a display to match, therefore Duffy may have his toughest task to date if he is to maintain the type of form which has shown the 26-year-old to be one of the Premier League’s very best central defenders.

2. Swaggering Liverpool aiming for six league wins in a row against struggling Southampton

Southampton’s collapse against Brighton on Monday was very worrying for Saints fans. A piledriver from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and a penalty from Danny Ings saw them cruise into a two goal cushion, but the manner in which the hosts allowed that commanding lead to slip points towards a team in a little bit of disarray.

Shockingly, the Saints have won just four home games at St Mary’s since the start of 2017 and the threat of another relegation battle this season looms yet again following one win from their opening five games in the Premier League.

Damningly, the side have dropped 13 points from winning positions in 14 games under the tenure of Mark Hughes. That inability to see out games alongside the absence of a consistent goal threat up front is a problematic combination. Southampton create plenty of chances — they had 14 shots against Brighton on Monday and 19 against Crystal Palace — but putting them away is a different proposition.

Liverpool v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League - Group C - Anfield Martin Rickett Roberto Firmino scored an injury time winner against PSG for Liverpool. Martin Rickett

On Saturday they travel to face a Liverpool side which has enjoyed a perfect start to the season. Jurgen Klopp’s men have won five from five in the league and snatched a dramatic three points against PSG in the Champions League midweek thanks to a quite brilliant Roberto Firmino winner in stoppage time.

Chelsea have also enjoyed a perfect start to the season, therefore the Reds know they cannot afford to drop points if they are to consider themselves serious contenders for the title. It’s not even October, but already the consequences of slipping up and giving opponents an advantage is huge.

Everything points towards another three points for the Merseysiders on Saturday, but also another week without a Southampton win. Planning out where his side were going to pick up points at the beginning of the season, Mark Hughes will have been realistic enough to know grabbing a win at Anfield would not be entirely plausible.

But one win from six games is a worrying pattern, and he will know his side are going to have to plug their problems quickly if they are to avoid another dirty and dreary relegation dogfight again this season come May.

3. Mourinho continues to steady the ship as Man United eye fourth win on the bounce

Three consecutive away wins, seven goals scored and just one conceded. September has been a very pleasant month for Jose Mourinho following a messy storm throughout August which saw his side lose against Brighton and be completely embarrassed 3-0 by Tottenham in front of his own supporters at Old Trafford.

Those poor results followed a summer of discontent where Mourinho and Chief Executive Ed Woodward clashed, and the United boss complained of not being allowed to buy another central defender to inject some stability into his backline to motivate his side’s chase for the title.

BSC Young Boys v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League - Group H - Stade de Suisse EMPICS Sport It has been a much more United Manchester in recent weeks. EMPICS Sport

It was a hairy period for both manager and his team, but the waters have been calmed considerably with away wins against Burnley, Watford and Young Boys midweek in the Champions League.

Two goals from Paul Pogba, swaggering with the captain’s armband strapped around his arm, and an assist from the Frenchman for Anthony Martial saw United ease to an impressive 3-0 win to get their European exploits up and running.

United welcome an ever-improving Wolves to Old Trafford on Saturday looking for a fourth win on the bounce. One month ago the prospect of that many wins back-to-back seemed like a pipedream as the walls looked like potentially crashing in on top of Mourinho.

The manager has remained bullish and assured, and has gotten his side back on track. His view of how he was treated by the media during his early-season struggles will not be soon forgotten, and he deserves a huge amount of credit for turning things around throughout the last number of weeks.

A siege-mentality it might not be with this United team, but somehow Mourinho has got his side back getting results, scoring goals, not conceding and winning on the road. Saturday’s game against Wolves will be their first at Old Trafford since their humbling by Tottenham — a much-improved United return to the field of play compared to the one that left it under a cloud of doubt, boos and frustration a month ago.

4. Impressive Matt Doherty faces biggest test at Old Trafford despite international snubs

With Shane Duffy, Stephen Ward, Seamus Coleman, Ciaran Clarke and Matt Doherty, Ireland can proudly boast five established defenders who are playing regular, week-on-week football in the Premier League — a fact which can often be overlooked when decrying the lack of Irish faces in the English top-flight.

While the first four names listed above feature regularly in the green shirt (141 appearances combined), the lack of caps for Doherty has become an awkward talking point in recent weeks.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Villarreal - Pre-Season Friendly - Molineux Nick Potts The defender has featured regularly for Wolves since 2010 and was named the club's Player of the Year in 2016. Nick Potts

The Dubliner has played just three times under Martin O’Neill since 2016, with Doherty still to earn his first full start for his country despite making over 180 appearances for Wolves since joining from Bohemians in 2010.

All of his appearances for Ireland have come off the bench and the talented defender’s absence from the starting XI in recent games against Wales and Poland caused a lot of people to again raise the question of why he wasn’t being included despite his Premier League pedigree.

Doherty himself has struggled to understand his lack of starts. Speaking last week, he said that “maybe his face doesn’t fit” and that while O’Neill had firstly critiqued his defending, now his desire to join in with attacks was the issue.

“I’ve been around the squads since 2016, but I’ve only picked up three caps coming off the bench for a few minutes towards the end,” he said. “I’d like to have a lot more caps and a few more starts. Sometimes your face doesn’t fit and mine doesn’t at the moment.

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“I know he’s said (O’Neill) he would like me to attack more. Maybe I’ll do that. When I first joined up it was my defending that was the problem. Now it’s my attacking. Maybe my face just doesn’t fit.”

Doherty was once again impressive last weekend against Burnley. The 26-year-old provided the assist for Raul Jiménez’s winner against Sean Dyche’s men, and he has played 430 from 450 minutes after five games in the Premier League so far this season.

Off The Ball / YouTube

Tomorrow he faces a big test against Manchester United at Old Trafford. With crucial Uefa Nations League games against Denmark and Wales coming up next month, Doherty will want to find his way into Martin O’Neill’s plans.

It is unfortunate that he is battling for a position alongside captain Seamus Coleman in the right side of defence. But it could come to a point where Doherty’s impressive performances week after week for Wolves mean limiting him to appearances off the bench may no-longer be an option.

As Doherty himself told Off the Ball following his display against Burnley last weekend: “I just need to keep the head down and keep playing games. I’m living the dream at the moment playing in the Premier League. It’s what I grew up wanting to do. So I’ve got to just stay in the moment.”

5. Manchester City need a serious response away to Cardiff following Champions League horrors

It was a horror show from Manchester City midweek in the Champions League. Losing 2-1 at home to Lyon in their opening game in Europe will have set alarm bells off at the club, especially as it came days after a 3-0 victory against Fulham which boss Pep Guardiola bizarrely voiced his displeasure with.

To make matters worse, the defeat was played in front of a less than full Etihad. The champions are already trailing in the title race, having dropped two points away to Wolves on 1 September. It is ridiculously early to start any sort of talks of crisis, but when contrasted to Liverpool’s shiny six wins on the bounce, Guardiola will have some work to do to motivate his side as they travel to Cardiff on Saturday.

Truth be told, City could not have asked for a better opponent to rebuild their confidence against. Already it looks like the Welsh side will struggle in the fight against the drop; currently sitting in 17th place with just three goals scored in five games and nine conceded.

Manchester City v Lyon - UEFA Champions League - Group F - Etihad Stadium Tim Goode Manchester City's Fernandinho appears dejected following his side's defeat at home to Lyon. Tim Goode

Man City’s leadership, ruthlessness in front of goal and levels of motivation to match their record-breaking 100 point total last season have all come under the microscope with their poor results against Wolves and Lyon.

Pep Guardiola watched on from the stands at the Etihad on Wednesday as his champions were made to look like amateurs by a side which finished third in Ligue 1 last season. Without the currently injured Kevin De Bruyne they look aimless and bereft of a direct, powerful creative outlet like the Belgian.

It’s too early in the season to make any grands conclusions following two poor displays. But Guardiola will know more than anybody else that the issues which were apparent for all to see against Lyon will need to be addressed and corrected sooner rather than later if they are to compete across both the domestic and European fronts all the way across the finish line come May.

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